Weeks 93 through 97

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View of the castle in Malcesine.

The last month has been a whirlwind of work! I somehow managed to submit nearly everything that was due. I never quite wrote the outline for the thesis for my UniTN adviser. Instead, I sort of started rolling all the reports I had written into a preliminary thesis outline, and then worked on fleshing parts out while my models were running. It’s still not entirely clear to me how much detail I should go into on certain aspects of the thesis, so I am just writing what I can in the meanwhile, and hopefully, I’ll manage to flesh it out better once my results are in.

Unfortunately, I’ve hit some snags in my code (i.e. nothing runs!), so I haven’t been able to get the type of results I’m looking for (i.e. any results!). I still have results from the internship portion of my work at FBK, but they aren’t well organized or complete. I think because of how long it takes to train models on our hardware, I’m going to have to sacrifice having an interesting and novel work to present, since I have to finish running all the baselines and the different data combinations. Basically, I won’t have any time to play around with two thirds of the things I would have liked to play around with, and that’s just sad. I guess I could theoretically extend my thesis until December, but I really would prefer to graduate in October.

I don’t want to drag this out, partly because I am looking forward to moving elsewhere. It has been a good learning experience to live here, but in the end, there are certain aspects of life here that I find incredibly exhausting. Bureaucracy is, of course, the main thing. It’s possible that I would become accustomed to it over time, and there are certainly aspects of life here that are wonderful, so I’m not totally against staying, but in any case, I would want to move out of Rovereto, which is simply too difficult to travel to/from.

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Light show on a building in Nancy.

The LCT meeting happened last month in Nancy, and just like last year, it was an absolute blast to meet so many awesome people. Nancy was practically impossible to get to from Rovereto, so I actually traveled back to Saarbrücken for the week. I met with my University of Saarland adviser there, to present to him the proposal for my master’s thesis. I had a lot of slides prepared on the math and the models and such, but, of course, he is an expert in my field, and so for those, he just said “skip it.” I was happy to hear that, because I didn’t want to talk about it anyway! Overall, I think the meeting went pretty well, because I was able to anticipate most of the questions that came up, and he did have some good advice for me as well. Apart from that, I got to see a bunch of folks from last year, which was of course the best part.

After that, I headed to Nancy for the LCT meeting. Although Nancy was nice, it didn’t compare to last year’s destination of Malta, of course. Also, unfortunately, we couldn’t all have a nice dinner together either, due to some organizational issues. But we still managed to hang out a lot. The city had a nice vibe, with plenty of buildings decorated in the art nouveau fashion. There was a river that we hung out at one of the evenings. They also had this awesome light show at around 11pm on the buildings in the main square. Actually, it was probably the coolest light show of this type that I’ve seen.

In any case, this year, the meeting was shorter. As a second year, I had to present a poster on my internship/thesis work. It wasn’t that great, because I don’t really have good results or conclusions to make from my thesis work, but it was still a good experience. I had to present the same poster at a mini-conference at work the next week, so I was happy to have the whole thing down pat by then. There was one pretty good invited speaker, and the others, I don’t know, because this time around, I had the good sense to sleep instead. However, I still got pretty sick at the end of the week. I guess travel, and late nights will do that for you. The worst part was that one of the days I was walking home, late at night, like around 2am, and suddenly, from a window above me, someone threw water, and it hit me. I got splashed with dirty who-knows-what water, out of a French window– just like in the movies, but in a bad way! Anyways, I spent the next week coughing and sneezing, but luckily got better in time to enjoy the next few weeks of summer.

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View of the Dolomites from Kolbenstein, a small town above Bolzano.

So then, apart from work, I’ve had a nice summer, full of aerial silks performances, and friends visiting. More friends are scheduled to visit soon, and I’m very much looking forward to that. The only trouble is that I haven’t had much time to travel to the places I would like to travel to, since every time friends visit, we go to the same big touristy places that they haven’t seen yet. Maybe it will be possible for me and my husband to plan something over a couple of weekends in the next month, but time is wearing thin to make plans; the rest of Italy is going on vacation in July and August, and things are basically getting booked out. In any case, I will be very busy with work, besides. So I’m not really optimistic about getting to see much more of Italy this summer, I’m afraid.

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Ducklings in Lago di Garda, at Malcesine.

Nevertheless, I’ve very much enjoyed spending time with friends! Last weekend, we went to Malcesine on Lago di Garda. The weather was lovely, so we walked around the town, and then rented some stand-up paddle boards. I managed to get on my feet on the thing a couple of times, but I found that controlling it, and especially, having any power to move against the wind and the waves, was pretty difficult while standing. I was able to move easily while standing on my knees though, and it still felt great to just be on the water. It reminded me of the times I used to go to the Columbia River Gorge near Portland, Oregon. If I have a free day again this summer, I just might come back here.

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Little birds (swallows?) were swooping all around the castle in Malcesine.

Costs:

  • €225 – rent
  • €55 – internet
  • €85 – phone (for 2 months)
  • €320 – travel (including some tickets and food)
  • €260 – clothes (including new sandals)
  • €60 – medical expenses, including routine blood check for hypothyroidism levels
  • €8 – video games
  • Total: €1,013
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Vacation

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Last month, our families came to visit. First my husband’s family and then my own. In total, we had family here for around a month, although I was only able to take around 2.5 weeks off. It was great to see everyone, and to get the chance to travel around Italy a little bit. In total, we visited Bologna, Venice, Bolzano, Castel Beseno, Florence, Rome, Pompeii, and Sicily.

Tips

I don’t have many tips for these places that you can’t find elsewhere, so I’ll compile the few I have here at the top since the rest of the post is pretty long.

  • Rome: 3 days is enough, official taxis are white and they are cheap and efficient; deep fried artichokes are amazing (“carciofio alla giudia”)
  • The Vatican: during tours at the Vatican, you can drop off your headset and keep going on your own if you want; spend a bit of extra time in the map room, because there’s a lot going on here; Garage Vespasiano can even take giant cars (but bringing a car to Rome is pretty pointless)
  • Pompeii: use the Circumvesuviana train to get there from Napoli (follow signs from the central station to their platforms), but watch the stop names outside the train to make sure to get off at “Pompei Scavi”, because the map might be missing stops on it; check out Villa dei Misteri (NW corner) for some really cool frescos
  • Sicily: spend a week here; renting a car at the airport makes sense to travel around the island; driving on highways feels similar to driving in LA (but I don’t know about driving in Palermo; that might be hard); don’t rent a big car or it won’t fit on small roads; keep in mind that Google maps will send you on tiny cobblestone streets that you aren’t supposed to drive on because they are limited to residents, so pay good attention to street signs
  • Venice: 1 day is enough to walk around the center and then take a ferry (“vaporetto”) back to the train station; there is parking in one area on the island but there’s not much point in bringing a car
  • Bolzano: buy speck (cured pork), take the cable car (10 euro there and back) to Soprabolzano and check out some of the views and hikes there
  • Trentino area: check out Castel Beseno, which is the largest fortification in the area and the views are amazing; there is 2 hour break between 10 and 12 in trains in the mornings, so plan around that for travel
  • Florence: the line for Uffizi can take an hour or more, so plan accordingly; eat amazing lunch sandwiches at “I’ Girone De’ Ghotti” on the way there from the cathedral

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The families

Our two families are similar in some ways, but different in others. They bring with them different stresses. My husband’s family likes plans, and I find it difficult to improvise or to explore, lest we go off the rails. My family, on the other hand, fails to make any plans, and as a result, everything is in utter chaos most of the time, making it difficult to achieve goals. Both families have strong opinions. Also, both families have members temporarily dealing with some health/walking difficulties so we move pretty slowly.

However, I feel that this year, things went pretty well overall. There were no big arguments and we got to do almost everything we set out to do together. The biggest stresses came from factors outside our control, that is, less from our interpersonal relations, and more from just stressful situations that occurred, and in the end we handled all of them.

I would very much like to pretend that the successes partly came from my experiences in Italy over the last year. I wish I could say that I have somehow become a more open and laid back person, capable of handling complex situations in a calm manner. I remember in the past once being playfully called “small and intense” (but in every joke there is a kernel of truth). It would be nice to think that over the last year I have become more relaxed, but without losing whatever positive aspects “intenseness” entails (such as perhaps focus or emotive capacity). But most of the successes of the vacation can more likely be attributed to my husband’s empathy and forethought than any of my own abilities, or else just to dumb luck with things working out as they should.

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Crisis

The most tense moment was when we lost someone. We were on the Circumvesuviana train from Napoli to Pompeii, and although this train is the simplest way to get to Pompeii, it is really shitty. It’s old and rattly and hot, and it makes many stops along the way. Before heading out, I got a timetable and map of the stops from their info center. As our stop was nearing, we moved to the front of the train. On the map, I saw that the next stop should be “Pompei Scavi (Pompeii excavations)” and told people to prepare themselves.

My husband’s brother was at the front as the doors opened and his parents were behind me (my husband was sick that day so he wasn’t with us). The doors opened and my husband’s brother hopped out. As quickly as they opened, they closed! I swear, it was something like 3 seconds that they were open, maximum. I tried to hold them open, but it was the old sort of train where the doors don’t sense people (it was kind of dangerous, to be honest). Just in that moment we realized this was not Pompei Scavi, but some other stop, although the map had not shown another stop in between. The train left, with my husband’s brother stuck on the platform. He didn’t have his phone since it wasn’t working in Italy, and he doesn’t speak a word of Italian. As the train pulled away, I made a motion for him to wait through the train door window, which I felt he understood.

We got to the next stop and went into full gear. I ran to buy a ticket for the next train back, and my husband’s parents got the station to call back to the previous stop to tell them what happened. Unfortunately, the station said they didn’t see him on the platform. Everyone was freaking out, but all things considered, I felt pretty calm. I felt that he had understood to wait (where could he go, after all?), and that the next steps were clear to me. I only had some restless anxiousness as I waited for the next train. Fortunately, it came in just 10 minutes, and the stop was only another 5 minutes away. All told it probably took around 25 or 30 minutes to get back. As I exited the train, however, I realized the platform was completely empty. No brother-in-law. No one at all, really. I descended the stairs, and saw only the exit doors.

Somehow, in this moment, it all caught up with me, and I felt that wave of panic starting to rise. I forced myself to calm down, and decided to thoroughly search the platforms above before trying to head past the exit doors (which I would be unable to re-enter without spending a ticket). I finally returned downstairs and went around the corner towards the exit doors– and there he was, sitting at the cafe bar. Of course, he had known the best course of action was to stay put. The station operators had found him after we called ahead (without being able to inform us), and had gotten him some coffee and water to calm his nerves while he waited. Crisis averted.

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Pompeii

We spent the rest of the day in Pompeii and I returned later once again with my family. I can really recommend spending a day there, especially if the weather is nice, because it’s just incredible to see how people lived back then (not so differently from us in fact), how vivid their frescos and other art was, and how much of the city has survived until now.

The Vatican

Other than the time we lost my husband’s brother, there were no major incidents. Of course everyone traded sicknesses as usual, we were late to many places, and had to figure out how to get around and where to eat, but these were normal every day stressors. Our families were together for only one of the days, and this was the day we decided to go to the Vatican. We had been too late to buy individual tickets, so we ended up having to get tickets in part of a tour. This tour was awful. The Vatican was super crowded and the tour lady raced through the coolest parts of it, so we kept losing people in the crowds. We should have just returned our radios to the lady after we got past the doors at the start, and walked through the rest of the museum on our own instead, because it would have been way less stressful.

Rome

In fact, we spent too much time in Rome, since our family trips only overlapped over one day there, and both families wanted to see everything. Unless you travel there specifically for the many different museums, it’s really just a big city like most other big cities, which is to say, 3 full days (not counting travel days) are enough to see the main sights. In terms of traveling around Rome, it’s true that we could have likely taken public transport almost everywhere, but being with people who had some trouble moving around, it made better sense to take taxis, especially since they were actually surprisingly cheap and incredibly efficient. It probably cost us an average of 5 euro per person per ride.

My parents had decided to rent a car since they were staying at an AirBnB some ways outside of Rome, but the only car they could find to fit everyone was a massive behemoth, half the size of a bus. This sequence of decisions all made little sense. The behemoth could hardly be driven in Rome and we would spend at least 30 minutes just searching for parking. Eventually, we found the one parking garage (Garage Vespasiano) that the behemoth could fit into, but sometimes that garage was full so we’d have to keep searching. In the end, after we parked, we still had to take taxis everywhere.

Sicily

After Rome and Pompeii, we continued on to Sicily. We flew from Rome to Palermo Airport with Rynair, which was another mistake. The plane was around 3 hours late, and that caused us to actually come later than if we had driven there. In fact, we ended up having to rent cars at Palermo Airport anyways, since once again, my family chose to live somewhere without a train connection. This time, we rented two smaller cars including one manual transmission SUV and an Alfa Romeo, the only automatic they had at the time. This turned out to be a good idea because we were able to get around pretty quickly this way, and to see many beautiful sights along the way.

Having two cars also gave us the ability to split up which also helped keep stress levels low. Driving on the autostrada (highway type road) wasn’t a lot worse than driving on Los Angeles freeways, but driving around small streets was harder even with the normal sized Alfa Romeo sedan. I would recommend renting as small a car as possible (a two door hatchback maybe), and I just wouldn’t bother to rent anything bigger than a small SUV.  Also, when you are driving around, if you are using Google maps, keep in mind that it will send you on tiny cobblestone streets that are actually illegal to drive on unless you are a resident there. So you have to pay close attention to the signs yourself, and don’t fully trust Google maps.

We only spent a few days in Sicily, and it wasn’t enough at all. A week, at least, would have been much better. We didn’t even visit Palermo, because we were staying in the countryside. Also it was a bit rainy and some of us were trading sicknesses around this time, so we really saw very little. We spent one day wandering around the lovely town of Cefalù, where we saw a centuries old laundry, and another day at Agrigento, which took us a couple hours through some lovely mountains to get to.

North Italy

After Sicily, we returned to the North of Italy, and visited Venice, Florence, and Bolzano. Once again, my parents rented a car and we had to drive and park it everywhere. It did come in handy since it gave us the ability to leave when we wanted, so we didn’t have to conform to train schedules (something my family is very bad at doing), but we still had to find a place to park before taking public transport around the cities.

In Venice, there is parking in only one place on the island but there are a few different garages there with plenty of space in them. In Florence and Bolzano there is parking near the train stations. So yes, it is possible to take cars to these cities, it’s just a bit of a hassle, and parking is around 20-30 euro for a full day. The cost of tolls also adds up, being between 5-15 euro one way.

Anyways, we had a nice time with both of our families, but we did get pretty tired out. After all the family was gone, my husband and I just ordered pizza and slept for two days straight.

Weeks 79 through 83

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Apart from the terrifying accident that happened last week, we did manage a bit of a vacation. This weekend was Easter weekend, which is a huge holiday in much of Europe, Italy included. Because of the accident, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to make it to Trieste, as we had planned. Fortunately, the whiplash wasn’t so bad and I have few other injuries so we managed to go after all. We wandered around the center of Trieste itself on Saturday evening, enjoying the churches, Grand Canal, and pier. On Sunday, we took bus line 6 to Miramare, a lovely castle on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic sea (where I fell in love with a lizard, and stood taking pictures of him for like forever). Finally on Sunday, we took bus line 42 to Grotta gigante, a huge cave full of stalagmites, with a massive cavern over 100m high. In total we had one full day and two half days in Trieste, and I feel like this is enough to see the main sights, though in our case we missed a couple things due to my recovery.

Costs:
  • €235 – rent
  • €55 – internet
  • €30 – phone
  • €30 – garbage
  • €163 – groceries
  • €172 – trip to Trieste
  • €130 – aerial silks
  • Total: €825

Carnevale

Last weekend, we visited Carnevale in Venice. I have to say, there was remarkably less public drunkenness than last time, in Cologne, but there were a lot more people. It was like a giant Renaissance Faire style costume party. The costumes ranged from a cheap 5 euro mask, to elaborate home made cosplay level get ups. I couldn’t help but buy a hand painted paper maché mask for myself, while my husband stuck with a cheaper plastic one with the giant plague-doctor style nose.

Venice is such an amazing city– it’s just like in the stories! Tiny streets spider out from the center, alongside narrow canals filled with gondolas and motorboats. Little arched bridges make a criss-crossing latticework over the canals, while constricting alleyways cut between the tall buildings, sometimes passing through low tunnels or under arched building supports. It’s claustrophobic right up until you reach Piazza San Marco, a wide plaza marked by a huge tower, an intricate basilica and a 24-hour Roman numeral clock, and which opens up to the Piazzetta di San Marco, which holds the palace. The Piazzetta in turn opens up to the main thoroughfare of Venice, the Grand Canal, where ferry boats snake their way around the entire city center, bussing people to the main hubs like the Piazza and the train station. There are no automobile roads.

If you had told me all of this, even if you had shown me pictures, I still don’t think I could have properly imagined this intricate city. Visiting during Carnevale was an amazing experience, in particular, as the whole city turns into one joyful party, but I look forward to returning during a calmer time as well, when there’s more time to see the sights.

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Weeks 68 through 72

This year, I spent the holidays back in the US. I typically only get to see my family once a year, and this is the first year in a while that I have been able to actually get back home. It was really nice to see my family in their natural habitat, as it were, as well as all the friends I had been unfortunately neglecting.

The first part of the trip the weather was a bit suboptimal, and I was super jetlagged, but I visited a lot of friends which was great. The second half of the trip the weather improved but, of course, as it always goes, I got horribly sick (I’m still coughing a little almost 2 weeks later), so I couldn’t do much of anything. I had planned to go hiking and to the beach, but I mostly ended up sitting at home, trying not to keel over. We only made it to Zuma Beach once, but we did see some dolphins (which is what happened last time we were here too). In any case, it was good that I allocated 3 weeks to the trip, since I was still left with enough time to see people despite all this.

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Can you make out the dolphins in the center left in this crappy phone pic?

Being back in the US reminded me of all the things I miss. Firstly, how nice it is to be close to friends and family! I really miss just being able to call someone up and have them be like, “yea! let’s hang out,” spur the moment, without having to overly plan an activity, without having conversations stray towards work, and without worrying about having to reach home at some particular time. I miss this kind of easy company.

Secondly, it’s nice that stores and restaurants are actually open. You can get anything you want at any time. It makes life just a lot more convenient than in Europe, where everything is only open at odd hours. I also missed the wide variety of food, including asian and mexican food (the latter of which you can’t hardly find where I have been living)– and omg, LA sushi! Also, I kind of missed driving. It gives me a nice feeling of agency that I don’t have in Europe, since I don’t have a car here. I also missed not having to breath in a ton of second hand smoke on the streets. Finally, I missed not being rammed into by groups of ladies with giant bags when walking on the sidewalk. I don’t understand it, but Italians just won’t share the sidewalk so you either have to skirt to avoid everyone (which is sometimes literally impossible because you are already at the edge) or just get rammed. They push and shove all the time actually. So inconsiderate.

Then there were all the things I certainly didn’t miss: the traffic, the smog (visible certain times of day over LA), the long travel times (partly due to the traffic, partly just due to long distances), the incredibly high cost of living, and the consumerist/workaholic culture as well, which is, to some extent, the other side of the coin with things being open and available all the time.

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I experienced that culture rather strongly when I went to check out the aerial classes at Cirque School near Hollywood in LA. I emailed them ahead of time, telling them about what I had been working on in silks and they said I should just do a drop in beginning class. So I signed up and I brought my little brother too, who I wanted to introduce to aerial. Unfortunately, this ended up being a terrible introduction for him. It was clear that the teacher at Cirque School expected us to be (a) physically fit and proficient, that is, you can already whip up plenty of push ups, sit ups, stretches, and yoga poses and (b) to be unable to do anything on silks or trapeze beyond basic climbs.

Maybe it isn’t unreasonable to assume that someone interested in aerial is already physically proficient, since it is a really demanding activity, but Cirque School’s tagline is “For anybody with any body.” I am afraid they did not fulfill that promise at all. The teacher was really dismissive of my little brother and of me as well, although I can already manage a few things. For my brother it was exhausting and discouraging, and for me it was frustrating and boring. It was clear that to the teacher, we were just another number on the long list of students that would file through the school, destined never to return– a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s like night and day as compared to ASD Punto Fitness in Rovereto and Night Flight in Portland, where my first experiences were so warm and welcoming. The teachers there didn’t expect you to be able to do anything, but they still got you up on the silks even in the first class, and they got you working on strength and flexibility right away. You walk away tired, but you feel like you are constantly improving, and it’s always fun and encouraging. I wanted to share that experience with my brother, but it just didn’t work out.

The end of the trip came much too soon. It took us over 24 real hours to get back to Rovereto, with 10 of those being spent on the most uncomfortable KLM plane imaginable. I wish I had taken a picture of how it was oriented, but basically, the seats were offset for some reason, so you had a seat leg right in front of you instead of an open space, and in our row there were additionally some sort of metal boxes taking up part of that space as well. I am a small person, who can fit in just about any seat, and I’ve sort of come to expect bad airplane conditions, but honestly, in this case… fuck that. This is just degrading. If you fly overseas, don’t pick KLM.

In any case, after a 1.5 hour car ride, a 10 hour flight, another 3 hour flight, 3 trains, and a bunch of waiting around in between, we finally reached Rovereto with just enough time to completely crash in bed. The very next day was Monday morning, when I would start my new full time internship, and in the following weeks, I would travel to Florence and Bologna as well. It was going to be busy!

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Cathedral in Florence.

For my master’s here at University of Trento, I need to write the thesis of course, but I also need an internship of 375 hours, which should be on separate data from the thesis work. In September, I applied to a paid research studentship with FBK, a local research institute. They hired me primarily for the master’s portion of my work (which they see as a precursor to doing a PhD with them), but I will also do a separate internship project with them.

For my master’s thesis, I will be working on acoustic model adaptation for second language learners of English and German. This is a piece of a larger project aimed at automatic grading of English and German proficiency exams for Italian speakers. Some of the problems we will encounter are that speech of second language learners exhibits phonological crossover from their native language, making it difficult for a speech recognition system trained on English to recognize that speech; however, there isn’t enough training data available to create a model trained solely on second language learner’s speech, let alone in our specific domain, hence the need for model adaptation. In addition, the assignments have the students produce spontaneous speech (rather than read speech), meaning we don’t have an expected transcription to train on from our domain. The ultimate goal is to be able to assign a grade to the students the way a teacher would, but the teachers are often not entirely consistent in their grading, which is another hurdle. Long story short, it’s a challenging project.

The team at FBK hired me because I have experience in speech recognition already. Actually, I would have liked to work on something new, to get some more cross-pollination, but this position was paid, unlike most other options here (even if the pay isn’t much after the crazy high Italian taxes), and the topic seems interesting. I also hope there will be some opportunities to work on the language modelling portion of the project as well.

For the internship portion, it seems like I will most likely be working on Russian morphophonology. Since Russian exhibits a great deal of inflectional and derivational morphology, a naïve pronunciation lexicon of Russian suffers from having many different forms of the same word. In addition, stress drastically changes the realization of vowels in Russian, and stress often shifts based on inflections/derivations, making speech recognition much more difficult. The task will involve creating a Russian morphology model that can hopefully alleviate some of these issues. This is a problem I remember encountering at my last job as well, so I am excited to get the chance to work on it now.

For the time being, I have started getting used to my new position, learning Kaldi (an open source speech recognition toolkit), and reminding myself how restless I feel after 8 hour days at work (plus lunch and 1 hour commutes each way). Humans were not meant to sit in front of the computer for this long, and I am afraid my long-term health will suffer (I’ve had some hand pain in the past from this). I’ve continued doing aerial which helps me stay fit and I try to take breaks while working. It’s striking how little quality of working life of the average person has increased in proportion to the massive gains we have seen in humanity’s productivity in recent years.

Anyway, after a long first week at work, my husband and I woke up super early on Saturday to travel to Florence for the weekend. There was a Netrunner (card game) tournament there on Sunday that he wanted to participate in. In my case, I just wanted to see the city. The weather was perfect, so we spent Saturday walking around the city together seeing the main sights, and on Sunday I visited some museums on my own.

Of course I saw Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Academia, the beautiful painted ceilings of the Uffizi Galleria along with Botticelli’s Venus and many other amazing artworks, but I think my favorite piece of art was Caravaggio’s Medusa, painted on a ceremonial shield, just because it was so shocking:

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All in all, it was a lovely city, though I would say that 2-3 days is enough to see the most interesting things. Also, I was very happy to visit in the off-season, because even in this chilly weather, the city had plenty of tourists!

This last weekend, we swapped the historic masterpieces of Florence for the modern street art of Bologna. My husband had another Netrunner tourney, and since we have family in Bologna, it made sense to visit. Bologna is a lovely city, and though we visited once before, it was under more stressful circumstances, so I am really happy to get a more relaxing weekend here. The city seems to be just the right size, where you can live comfortably with lots of varied things to do, with the nice possibility to get around (both by foot and public transport), but you aren’t inundated with people or tourists. I can imagine it being a nice city to live in, and it’s been a really nice time just chilling.

Costs:

I didn’t break up the costs that well in my log for this month, so there’s a weird misc category with both gifts, groceries, and some other junk inside there, but oh well. It was an expensive couple of months due to Christmas and travelling a lot, but I should actually still manage to stay within budget. (Once again, having a person to split the costs with is huge.) Also, since I didn’t report costs in the last post, these numbers cover almost two months worth.

  • €450 – rent for two months
  • €123 – utilities (internet and gas/electric)
  • €23 – phone
  • €165 – aerial in Italy and the US
  • €385 – groceries, gifts, misc
  • €514 – travel
  • €186 – dining
  • Total (for almost two months): €1846

Weeks 57 through 60

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September and October have been the months of hikes. It’s been surprisingly warm during the day, though the evenings have been chilly. I’ve gone somewhere almost every weekend with friends, and I’ve watched the trees turn from green to gold to rust.

At the end of September, a friend with a car took us on a difficult hike to Cima Rocca. I’m not that accustomed to hiking, though I enjoy it quite a lot, and this hike was particularly difficult. It went at a fairly steep uphill the entire way, until the very end, at which point it became nearly a Via Ferrata style climb. That is to say, there was a metal guide cable, and you had to use your hands to scramble up the rocks.

It took around three hours to climb to the top, with your thighs and calves protesting the entire way, and just one hour to come down, with your knees complaining. As hard as it was, the view from the top was absolutely worth it (though it was a misty day). Not only that, but there were some cool old caves dug out from WWII along the way, and a great deal of fresh air. In the end, this was one of the hardest, but also one of the most fun hikes I have done.
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In October, I had the chance to visit Milan to meet the same friend who I met recently in Prague. Milan was… money. The city center was small in terms of area, but grandiose in terms of content. The cathedral was huge, the castle had a moat, and the shopping/fashion was so high-end, that the cheaper area was the one that had labels like Prada and Louis Vuitton. The expensive fashion district had clothes that looked like they had just come off a model– you know, the weird ones, that no normal human would ever wear.

Although I usually like visiting museums, the one in the castle somehow didn’t impress me. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the world-class art in huge cities like Paris and Berlin. Overall, two days in the city were just enough for me to see everything, though if I was the shopping type, I’m sure I would have needed more.

The next weekend, I headed back to Saarbrücken (SB) to retrieve my bike, and visit my friends. After a 10 hour commute through lovely Austria, I found myself in Germany again.

I think I have a sort of love-hate relationship with SB. Although I am frustrated at the quality of schooling, I can now look back and realize that it was better than what I will see here this year, because there were many different professors to work with, and many different course offerings. In addition, SB has an amazing community of students. Everyone in the local program is studying the same thing, so you have a lot of people to work with, and a lot in common with those around you.

Here in Italy, I have found it difficult to integrate into the local community in the same way. Everyone in CIMeC is studying cognitive neuroscience together, so they share all the same classes and have the same interests. It’s possible that we have more in common than I think, but I don’t share any classes with them, so I wouldn’t know anyway. The computer science students in Povo also share all their classes, and by virtue of this, have also formed a tight knit community. Basically, I am rather on the periphery of what is going on here. So while my personal life here is good, my academic life is shitty.

Coming back to SB reminded me of everything I am missing out on.

I returned from SB feeling rather disappointed, but fortunately, a friend was coming to visit for a couple of days, which helped lift my spirits. We wanted to show her around some of the sights, so we headed back into the mountains. The first day was unfortunately misty again when we took a small trip an a hike just above Rovereto. The second day was a little clearer, and we headed up higher, up a windy road into the hills nearby, where we hiked through falling tree leaves, to the top of a large hill.

My friend only had a couple days with us, and once again, I had to say goodbye. One great thing about my master’s program is that I get to meet a whole ton of amazing international people. However, the entire experience is basically a revolving door of goodbyes, as people finish their masters and head back to their home countries, and you wonder all the while if you will ever see them ever again.

In any case, I had to bear my sadness on the move, because the next day we went on a trip with the university right back in the mountains, to Rio Novella. I stumbled through this trip, a bit tired after the last three days, but happy to chat with all the various international students from different departments. We went through apple orchards, to a really steep canyon, and through a gorge to a church on top of a cliff. You’re probably tired of hearing this– the views were amazing.

Finally, at the very end of the month, I visited the Castello Beseno, which is a castle on top of a hill not far from Rovereto. It was a peaceful day, and there weren’t many tourists there, so we had a lovely stroll throughout the whole thing. It was a real medieval castle, like the kind you read about in history books! Although I’ve been in Europe for a year now, I didn’t visit that many castles last year, and as an American, I am still impressed by these historic structures.

Apart from taking trips and just enjoying life… I have to admit that in terms of work, I’ve done very little this month. As I mentioned before, there doesn’t seem to be that much for me to do in the department here. I’m only taking a few classes, and they aren’t that good. The machine learning class in Povo has a really good instructor, but strangely it doesn’t have any homework, so I’ve just had to do my best to study on my own. The Human Language Technologies course in Rovereto is possibly the worst course I have ever taken. The topics are all repetition from last year’s coursework, and the lecturing is both boring and uninformative.

I’m quite frustrated (but unsurprised) that my second year university does very little to coordinate a curriculum that will be useful to second years. As I was warned by my second year colleagues last year, in the LCT program you basically end up doing Year 1 twice. My hope is that I will be able to teach myself everything that I haven’t managed to learn yet. I mean, I mostly taught myself last year anyway. I’ve been working on linear algebra in my spare time, but right now, my main goal is to find an internship and a master’s thesis topic.

At least daily life in Rovereto has been good.

However, there’s one more bit of frustrating news. My husband has been in Italy for almost two months now, and my stay permit is nowhere in sight. Once I do get the stay permit, it will take him probably at least a week to get the appointment with Questura (immigration) sorted so that he can be allowed to stay provisionally in Italy. However, with the Shengen visa waiver that Americans get, he is only allowed to be in Europe for 90 out of each 180 days. That means he has to go home ASAP, so that he can save some days for doing all the paperwork once I get my stay permit and he returns. So I guess he’ll be going back for Thanksgiving, and I’ll be here all alone for a while again.

Costs:

It seems like it does help to have a second person splitting costs. Even with all the dining out and travel, I’ve managed to stay under budget. However, keep in mind, my utilities payment has not been charged yet (it will be very expensive at the start of November because of move-in costs, but should be much cheaper after that), and my internet bill was low I think because of last month’s deposit payment.

I see a lot of extraneous items below. It’s time to think about reigning it in again. Phone is too high, and I should probably finally pull the plug on Project Fi… I am just such a sucker for the convenience. The bouldering gym passes will eventually get used, but I am going to swap to mainly doing aerial now (I will be ramping it up to twice a week), so those were not really a necessity after all. The miscellaneous category was just silly spending. As usual, all the dining out is ridiculous. I will say that I won’t feel bad about the coats, because I got a seriously insane discount there.

  • €235 – rent
  • €14 – internet
  • €60 – phone (I should probably drop Project Fi, since the European plans are way cheaper…)
  • €50 – bouldering gym passes
  • €150 – aerial silks classes
  • €60 – transport, misc stuff for the house
  • €55 – a coat and a warm jacket for winter (fantastic thrift store price)
  • €231 – groceries
  • €120 – dining (including amazing gelato at Zenzero in Rovereto!)
  • Total: €975

The Drive

 

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View of a road from the train through Austria.

I loved taking long road trips around the US, both seeing new destinations, as well as driving there. We’d gather up all our things– our clothes, our food, our tents, our games– and we’d head off towards the forest of huge Sequoias in the North, or the vast deserts to the East. Even when we just took day trips to the hills nearby or the beach an hour away, I never minded driving. When we left in the morning (or let’s be real, in the early afternoon, since we never got out on time), the car trip meant that the fun was all ahead. When we started on our way home, usually long after the sun had set, it meant our comfy beds were waiting for us. On dark stretches of road, we could see the stars outside the car window.

Sometimes, later, when I was the one behind the wheel, driving in the car felt like both my adventure and my home. Often, I felt like I could easily skip my exit on the freeway, and just keep going into the sunset, to find whatever waited for me at the edge of the world.

But I never did keep going. I always took the exit. Why did I do that? The world is so vast and there’s so much to see. Why not just let the moment take you away? I guess there was always a reason: work in the morning, people waiting at home, laziness to make the trip back, discomfort at the thought of facing the unknown. Maybe the reasons made sense, or maybe they were just excuses. In any case, I never answered the call of the road.

Now, I don’t have a car, and I don’t have the same chance. Taking the train is just not the same. I don’t know if it’s the other people chatting nearby, or if it’s just the constant foreignness of everything around me, but there is neither the excitement of adventure, nor the anticipation of homecoming. Rather, there is a feeling of constant displacement, like my trip is anchored between nowhere and nowhere else.

On the train, I can’t just skip my exit, and let the rails carry me away– the conductors don’t take a liking to that. On the train, I can’t let my mind wander as I become a part of the vehicle, controlling its motions over the smooth asphalt as easily as I control the motion of my own body. On the train, I can’t stop to grab a bite at an interesting hole-in-the-wall, or to explore a little-traveled corner of the world.

Instead, I must submit to the vehicle and the system propelling it onwards. I must agree with the system on my intentions ahead of time, and accept its plan for me. I must fight the timetables, and struggle through the crowds, and all my things must fit in a handy bag. Oftentimes, I don’t even get the window seat.

Of all things, I never thought I would miss the drive.